OCEAN CITY – Councilman Jim Hall says he’s never heard citizens speak so passionately about an issue like he’s heard them talk about cutting some of the city’s take-home vehicles.
The City Council weighed its options and continued its efforts of trying to determine which employee’s take home vehicles were perks or a necessity in order to do their jobs efficiently, and set in place a 15- mile radius in which employees must live in to be eligible for a take home vehicle.
“I think the 15-mile policy is very responsible,” said Councilman Lloyd Martin. “The public has been hammering us about every single dime, so we need to do this.”
In fuel costs and repairs alone, the town’s 65 take-home vehicle fleet costs roughly $300,000 annually, but after further amending how they would measure the 15-mile radius, and excluding four undercover police vehicles (all of which are operated by officers who live outside 15 miles), the vehicle cuts look to be slightly below the $60,000 range.
Originally, City Manager Dennis Dare had used Google Maps to calculate the distance from each employee’s home address to City Hall, but reworked the calculations before Monday night’s meeting, and determined the radius based on the distance from the employee’s home to the town limits.
Simply put, if an employee lives in Bethany Beach, the new calculations would stop the mileage when said employee entered the town limits on 146th Street rather than adding the additional Coastal Highway mileage to 3rd street at City Hall.
That decision essentially saves a few employees who were on the cusp of the original 15-mile radius from having to relinquish their vehicle, according to Dare.
Still, Councilwoman Margaret Pillas wants to see all of the take-home vehicles commandeered and kept at City Hall, citing the high percentage of usage on some of the vehicles for the commute to and from work.
“We need to form a carpool,” said Pillas. “Let’s not try to get rid of these vehicles through attrition, because most of these cars, you could leave them in town.”
Dare said that “about a dozen” vehicles will be trimmed from the take-home vehicle fleet based on the new calculations of the 15-mile radius, and said that for him, the answer on whose vehicle to take away lies in critical response time rather than total distance.
“We need some of these people to respond in a timely matter, and if it takes an hour for them to get here, they simply can’t do it, and probably don’t need the vehicle,” said Dare, “but we can’t require everyone to live within the city limits of Ocean City because it’s just too expensive.”
With that said, Dare noted that over 65 percent of the town’s employees live within the 15-mile radius.
The council seemed to tread lightly around what it would do at the beginning of the conversation, perhaps trying to be overly politically correct and properly navigate over a touchy situation toward the hopeful result of “right-sizing” the amount of town-owned vehicles taken home by employees.
That is, until Jim Hall seemingly opened the floodgates.
“Everyone is dancing around this because it’s a sore subject and everyone’s trying to do the right thing and be the nice guy,” said Hall, “but this is going to be an ugly decision as a lot of these folks have had cars for 20-30 years and they are valuable employees, but I’ve been around for a few years myself, and I’ve never heard from the citizens like I’ve heard now. People are hurting in this town.”
The conversation later welcomed a former councilman and retired police officer Jay Hancock, who has historically been an advocate of cutting the take-home vehicle fleet substantially.
“The number of take-home vehicles have exploded over the years, especially in the police department,” said Hancock. “There was a time when the only take-home vehicle belonged to the chief, but in the 80s with the advent of bureaucracy came the beginning of the take-home vehicles being seen as a perk or a symbol of rank.”
Hancock noted a few other quips of history including that K-9 units, which he called the group “most justified in getting a take-home vehicle”, were actually the last in the department to receive them, even though they are now covered by union contracts and are not at risk of losing their vehicle at all regardless of what council decides.
“These cars began as a perk, but now it’s thought of as an entitlement, and the city can’t afford an entitlement right now,” said Hancock.
The council voted to move forward with the 15-mile radius as a starting point and advised Dare to make further cuts as needed before the discussion is revisited in the near future.
Hall said that the decision could have been a bit more extreme, however.
“There’s been discussion up here about taking every vehicle away, and if I were to make a motion for that, it might just fly tonight, because the citizens of the town are angry,” said Hall on Monday. “Things just aren’t like they used to be. When we were fat with cash, this was okay, but it’s not like that anymore.”